This International Women’s Day, we take a look at 10 of the women who influenced the music scene over the years. (in no particular order)
Bessie Smith – Empress of the Blues
Bessie Smith sang raw, uncut country blues inspired by her life. Her voice, coupled with the ability to connect with an audience through songs written and sung about true human struggles – identifying a depth of feeling that nearly everyone has experienced, but would have trouble describing- led to her gaining the title ‘Empress of the Blues’. She gave hope to oppressed black women and inspired many singers who came after her.
She was ahead of her time, writing songs about her life in the South, in which everyday experiences were relayed in plainspoken language – not unlike the rap music that would emerge more than half a century later.
With a career spanning more than half a century and appearances on an estimated 10,000 recordings, Kaye is one of the most recorded bass players in history. She started in the music industry as a guitar prodigy at age 13. By 25, she was playing guitar for Sonny & Cher, and on Ritchie Valens’ ‘La Bamba’.
But it was a twist of fate that led her to ultimate success, when the bass player in a recording session failed to show up. She picked up the instrument and the rest can be heard throughout music history – The Beach Boys, Neil Young, Frank Zappa, Lou Rawls, Ike & Tina Turner, Dusty Springfield, Love, The Monkees, Ray Charles, The Righteous Brothers, Wayne Newton, and on and on. Kaye has contributed her tasteful playing to so many classics that the history of modern music cannot be told without her. She influenced countless bass players and wrote some of the most iconic grooves of all time.
Sister Rosetta Tharpe – The Godmother of Rock n Roll
Sister Rosetta Tharpe mixed traditional Gospel music with what would become the foundation of Rock N Roll guitar. She played through chord changes on her guitar, which demonstrated a jazz influence, and mixed this with blues, gospel, and rock sounds to create her own unique style. Her voice commanded attention, was effortless, beautiful and full of attitude.
Those who are widely considered the ‘founders’ of Rock n Roll (Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis, Johnny Cash, Little Richard and Chuck Berry) have all cited her as inspiration.
Willie Mae Thornton (Big Mama Thornton)
An aggressive blues shouter, who also played the drums and a biting country-style harmonica, Big Mama Thornton was a major influence on younger blues and soul singers.
Her growling, deep rendition of the song ”Hound Dog”, written by Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller directly influenced Elvis Presley’s version, which became a Number 1 pop hit in 1956. Miss Thornton’s own song ”Ball and Chain” became a signature for Janis Joplin in 1968.
Carole King is named as one of the most influential female songwriters of all time. Not only is her lyrical style personal, but her genuine stage presence and warmth shines through when performing all of her songs.
She transformed her style of music from the lighthearted pop she created with Gerry Goffin to more intimate, emotional music. In doing so, she showed the changing of the role of women in the music industry, as well as in society. This came at a time when women were questioning their place in society, realising new roles for themselves, and becoming more independent. By drawing from her own life experiences, she wrote lyrics that were not only enjoyable to listen to but more importantly, represented women in society with a positive, empowering outlook.
One of the greatest vocalists of all time, Tina Turner’s presence on the stage challenged the “pretty” performances of Black female performers of the ’60s. Her legendary physicality and sexy, energetic image signalled a shift in the way female performers presented themselves to an audience. She brought to life the electricity and soul of rock music in a way that paved the way for those who came after her.
Tina also survived and fought her way to freedom against an industry and an abuser that would have swallowed most of us whole.
Aretha Franklin – The Queen of Soul
She was the first woman inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1987. A versatile, powerful singer who demonstrated talent across a multitude of genres with ease. She blended gospel with jazz, blues and R&B. She took on the world of rock ‘n’ roll. It was this ability to embody the spectrum of African-American musical traditions that earned her the title ‘Queen of Soul’.
In addition, she was an inspirational figure of black pride, recording music and singing live to empower and change history for her culture and the future, including performances during the civil rights movement. She used her gifts to make a difference as well as to make art.
Ruth Brown – “The House That Ruth Built”
While performing at a Washington, D.C. nightclub in 1947, Brown was noticed by a local DJ who contacted Atlantic Records. They were very impressed and offered her a contract. However, while en route to New York to sign it, she was involved in a serious car accident, which landed her in hospital for a year. After recovering, she was signed to Atlantic Records by label founders Ahmet Ertegun and Herb Abramson. Brown gave the new company its third-ever hit with “So Long,” a simple, bluesy showcase for her strong, church- and jazz-schooled voice that entered the Billboard R&B chart in September of 1949.
Two dozen hit records by Brown helped Atlantic secure its footing as a major contender in the record industry; a track record for which the label was referred to as “the House That Ruth Built.”
She began her professional career as the lead singer for the all-girl group, The Supremes, who had a string of number-one records that helped secure the Motown sound on a pedestal in black music history, mainly thanks to Ross’ engaging presence and vocal talent. Venturing the music scene solo, She became the first female artist to gain six number-one hit singles, and later was announced as the most successful female music artist of the 20th century by the Guinness Book of World Records, with a total of 70 charted hits in the UK.
Through her music and acting career which spans over four decades, Ross has withstood the test of time. She has won several major awards, including a Golden Globe, a Tony and several American Music Awards.
Suzi Quatro and her sisters Arlene and Patti formed an all-girl rock group called ‘The Pleasure Seekers’ in 1964. The Detroit-based garage band was one of the first rock groups to feature an all-woman lineup. In ’69 the Pleasure Seekers morphed into ‘Cradle’ (minus Arlene, but plus another sister, Nancy,). Two years later Suzi was a leading lady racing up the charts, rocking just as hard as any of the guys.
She launched to stardom in all leather, Her singles were ballsy, boisterous and laced with innuendo, and by being the opposite of the typical girl singer she helped pave the way for future rock groups led by strong women.
There are, of course, many more incredible women who did amazing things. The list will never end but what stands true is that women have had, and continue to have, a strong influence on the entertainment industry – and we’re proud of it!!